If 2016 was Rupert Murdoch’s summer of discontent, this could be the summer of his despair. It was a little more than a year ago that the Roger Ailes sexual harassment scandal erupted. Then came a cascade of related sexual misconduct lawsuits against various Fox on-air personalities and executives. Ailes died earlier this year.
The future of Murdoch’s media empire and his company, 21st Century Fox, could depend on the pending approval of his $12bn takeover of Sky News. But the deal must clear Ofcom, the British regulatory authority over broadcasting. The endemic allegations of sexual misconduct inside of Fox may, justifiably, have caused Ofcom to think twice about approving the deal and giving the Murdochs greater global reach over the news.
The Murdochs had hoped approval would come in June but Ofcom decided to extended its review into whether the deal makes the Murdochs too powerful. The regulators have also scrutinized whether they are fit and proper owners, a question that has lingered since this newspaper broke the phone hacking story six years ago that forced the shuttering of the Murdoch’s largest British newspaper, the News of the World.
It looked like that hurdle had been cleared but in light of recent events, the fit and proper questions could also be revisited. Culture Secretary Karen Bradley has asked Ofcom to examine new allegations of fabricated news reporting at Fox News that has eerie echoes of the phone hacking scandal of 2011.
The hacking of the phone of a murdered girl, Milly Dowler, would seem to be as low as a news organization could go. But we recently learned that Fox News published a fabricated a story about the circumstances surrounding the death of a young man, Seth Rich, who was a Democratic party aide.
The concocted and discredited story – which Fox retracted a week later – alleged that Rich was murdered by Democrats because he was involved in leaking the hacked emails that embarrassed and hurt the campaign of Hillary Clinton. In both the Dowler and Rich cases, Murdoch employees caused untold heartbreak to the parents of murdered children.
Can there be anything more heinous? How can a news empire that twice exploited murder victims possibly be found “fit and proper” to control still more global broadcasting assets.
Then there is the sexual harassment that seems baked into the culture of Fox News, otherwise known as the Trump News Channel. The allegations keep coming, so many of them involving so many different on-air personalities that it’s impossible to keep them all straight.
The latest cases involve two hosts of shows on Fox Business News, both of whom have been suspended. The new allegations surely provide fuel for a group of British politicians including Ed Miliband, Vince Cable and Ken Clarke who have been campaigning for the takeover to be blocked. The government said it wanted a reply from Ofcom by August 25.
While the mounting sexual misconduct cases are problematic, it is the shameful Seth Rich story that Fox propagated that could be the coup de grace for the Sky deal. It revealed news standards that are shockingly shoddy.
We know the dimensions of this new scandal because of the excellent and thorough reporting of NPR’s David Folkenflik who unearthed the tangled tale. It involved a Fox “investigative reporter” who fabricated a story linking Rich to the hacked Clinton emails by relying on dubious sources and fabricated quotes.
All of this served to draw attention away from the escalating Russia scandal engulfing the Trump presidency. According to NPR’s reporting, the White House pushed urgently for publication of the fake story, based mainly on a Fox contributor and Republican donor. The story unraveled after another source disowned it and said quotes attributed to him were phony.
Rich was the young Democratic National Committee employee who was killed in the summer of 2016 in what appeared to have been a botched robbery. But Fox host Sean Hannity promoted a conspiracy theory that Rich was killed by Democratic operatives because he had leaked emails that were harmful to the Clinton campaign.
If Rich and the Democrats were responsible for the hacked emails, then Russia and Trump backers could not be blamed, despite all the evidence pointing to them. Hannity flogged the concocted Rich conspiracy until, without explanation, he dropped it.
As in the British phone hacking case, the Rich scandal goes far beyond shoddy journalism. It reveals a cruel streak at the heart of the Murdoch empire. Joel Rich, father of the slain 27-year old, told Folkenflik that Hannity’s conspiratorial rantings about his son’s death and the concocted Fox story were “almost as bad for us as when we first learned of Seth’s death.”
Almost word for word, this is what Milly Dowler’s family said about the stories that were based on her hacked phone messages. “I didn’t sleep for about three nights ‘cause you’re replaying everything in your mind,” Sally Dowler, her mother, testified.
The Dowler case, for which Rupert Murdoch profusely apologized, almost cost him Sky for good. With control of it tantalizingly close, it must be agonizing for him to see history repeat itself.
But what kind of news organization toys with the emotions of the families of murder victims for either sensational headlines or to help their political patrons?
One that is neither fit nor proper to control more of the institutions that are supposed to inform, not mislead, the public.